Thursday, 9 February 2006
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on A Vision for Change, a new national policy framework for the mental health services, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 2 p.m. Spokespersons will have 15 minutes each and other Senators will have ten minutes each. The Minister shall be called on to reply not later than five minutes before the conclusion of the statements.
In August 2001, the Minister of State at the then Department of the Environment and Local Government, Bobby Molloy, who had specific responsibility for road safety, announced his intention to penalise motorists using mobile telephones while driving. Yesterday, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, said that he will introduce legislation in these Houses to ban the use of mobile telephones in vehicles. My party supports that position and will co-operate with the Government in ensuring that the legislation is brought through the Houses as a means of demonstrating to drivers that this issue must be addressed.
In 2003, fixed penalties were introduced in Northern Ireland for the use of mobile telephones in cars. We should introduce necessary legislation and this House would be the proper place to do so. Clearly, the legislation needs to be legally sound and proven to work because there are many in the legal fraternity who simply pick over driving offence cases and use them as a means to undermine the law.
This will be an unpopular measure because the culture of using mobile telephones is now pervasive in all areas of society, not least on the road. However, if politicians come together on this issue, in a co-operative way and introduce tough new laws, we will see positive results in terms of reducing the carnage on our roads. My party will support the Government if it chooses to introduce the legislation in this House.
I recently had occasion to travel from Dublin to Belfast and noted that between Dundalk and the M50 there is no place to pull over, stop for petrol or have a coffee, despite the fact that the National Safety Council, through advertising campaigns, is constantly advising people to do so on long journeys. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, took the NRA to task some months ago and stated that provision should be made for petrol stations and service areas on our roads. I ask the Leader to report to the House in the coming weeks on whether the Minister of Transport is planning to enforce this because there is very little point in encouraging motorists to take breaks while driving if there is nowhere for them to stop.
Several years ago we discussed at some length the problems created by the SARS epidemic in China. We were led to believe, on the best possible evidence, that the whole world would be overrun. Many people expressed grave concerns, there was much media commentary on the issue and then it simply died away.
Last year, we were introduced to bird flu. It broke out in Asia, moved through Asia Minor and across to Turkey. An infected bird was found in Greece and it was generally held that it would only be a matter of time before Europe was overrun with a bird flu pandemic and there would be widespread global difficulties.
We now have the same story again, this time with regard to Africa. It would be very helpful if the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, or someone from her Department would explain to the world at large that the chances of an influenza pandemic are close to those of a snowball surviving in hell. There has not been a flu pandemic since before the 1916 Rising. The chances of it happening again are remote in the extreme.
Elderly people in particular worry about this and we should clear the air. Normal precautions should be taken and we should get real about it. It is one of these sensationalist scare stories spread by the media because people do not know enough to contradict them.
Today Greencore is holding its AGM at which it will announce massive profits and a bright future, and that it does not care that much about beet because it is mainly a British company dealing in snack and convenience foods. While it is looking at that bright future, beet farmers and the workers in Mallow have no future at all. To add insult to injury, to wish Greencore well on its way after leaving chaos behind it, we are giving it over €100 million. That is appalling and should be debated in the House. It is unfair on farmers, workers, the community and European taxpayers. That is not how we want our money spent and it gives a bad impression of the European project.
Last October a commitment was given to the Oireachtas that the inquiry into the death of Pat Joe Walsh in Monaghan General Hospital would be completed in three months. We are well beyond that but we are still waiting to hear the outcome of the inquiry.
I do not know how many years it is since we were given a commitment that the use of mobile phones in cars would be prohibited but we are still waiting. I also remember Government representatives giving unqualified commitments that the beet industry was safe in its hands, commitments I and others knew were impossible to fulfil.
However, perhaps the most brazen commitment was given in 2003 by the then Minister for Transport, Deputy Séamus Brennan, when he stated that Cork Airport would be debt free. Last night in this House, Senator Minihan finally elicited the truth from the Government, namely, that it will not be debt free. The only question is the size of the debt the airport will have to carry.
External commentators said at the time that the breakup of Aer Rianta would not work the way the Minister proposed; it was obvious. He assured us, however, that his advice was that it could be done and now Cork Airport will be burdened with a debt that it did not choose to take on. We do not know what an independent Cork Airport would have decided if it was operating on its own. It is now the victim of other people's decisions.
It is a most profound breach of faith by the Government to make such a commitment to advance an ideologically-driven decision to break up the State airport service into independent services. I am tabling an amendment to the Order of Business to discuss the future of Cork Airport, particularly the commitment given by the Government to enable it to start off debt free.
I support Senator Brian Hayes's comments on road safety and hope legislation will be introduced to address the use of mobile phones while driving. When talking about road safety, we must be conscious that the penalty must be of such an extent that it inhibits people from taking the risk. When penalty points were introduced, there was initial nervousness but people quickly decided the risk was still worth taking. It is only when the risk is not worth taking that we will succeed on the roads.
On Cork Airport and the Adjournment matter I raised on Tuesday, I support the views of Senator Ryan. A commitment was made in this regard. For Cork Airport to operate competitively in an international market and to have full independence, it is imperative that it can do so debt free. That was the agreement from day one. Now, however, it appears in light of what was said in this House on Tuesday night, that the commitment will not be honoured. The decision to build a new terminal in Cork Airport took many years to make. The irony is that if the investment had been made when it should have or if the breakup of the airports had been held up until the terminal had been finished, it would not have been a problem. The Government must intervene and find a mechanism to resolve the issue.
Most people fully appreciate the increased funding for special needs from the Department of Education and Science in the past couple of years, even if much of it is the result of high profile court cases to establish the rights of children with special needs. It has become clear, however, that while investment at primary level has been increased dramatically, that pattern does not continue at second level, posing serious problems at this level for school management, staff and parents.
I ask the Leader to request the Minister to continue primary level expenditure at second level. The Department of Education and Science has also withdrawn the home support grant for children with autism who are at school. These are two important issues for parents and those dealing with the students. While we recognise everything that has been provided by way of resources at primary level, it must be continued at second and third levels.
Of course the farming organisations have serious concerns about the nitrates directive and an approach has been indicated that might deal with that issue. They might at least await the outcome because the farming organisations have benefited more than anyone from social partnership.
When talking about the Great Southern Hotels group, for which we all have such affection, especially Senator Coghlan, we are hardly talking about the commanding heights of the tourism economy. It is fortunate to have been retained in State ownership for 20 years but it is difficult to argue that the interests of the entire workforce of the country hang on the sale of the group.
I support my colleague, Senator Ryan, who has frequently reproved me for my Dublin-centred parochialism, in his Cork-centred parochialism. I refer him to the good book, with which I am sure he is familiar, and the text, "Put not your trust in princes". The House has experience of commitments. I remember when the fracture of a commitment given to Senator O'Toole by a predecessor of the Leader was pointed out, the former Leader simply stated that the commitment was not absolute. Senator Ryan should be certain of the nature of the commitment he secures.
The use of mobile telephones in cars is already contemplated by the penalty points system, under which one can be given penalty points for using a mobile telephone while driving. I would like this penalty enforced because it is a spreading plague.
An incident last night marks an important development in gang warfare. It appears we are now confronted by the prospect of IRA mercenaries making their bomb making skills available to criminals in this city. It is fortunate no one was killed last night by an extremely nasty and professionally made device attached to a car. I sincerely hope we will not face car bombings and that the individuals in question will be hammered by the law. If new legislation is needed to introduce severe penalties against this type of gangsterism, I would support it.
I ask the Leader to examine the possibility of holding a debate on an issue she raised previously in the House. Some time ago, when it emerged that immigrants were forced to queue for many hours in the rain to get documentation, the incident was regarded as a disgrace. It is now happening again with migrants forced to queue all night to have visas stamped in order that they may remain in the State after visiting relatives abroad. A limited number of tickets are issued at the Garda office on Burgh Quay and people are seen on a first come, first served basis. People drive from Sligo, Galway and Limerick and start to queue outside the office which stamps the visas at 10 p.m. Last Friday evening, ten people were in the queue at 10 p.m. and were joined by a further 40 people by 7 a.m. The excellent newspaper, Metro Éireann, features a full report on the issue. We should not treat people who are legally resident here like cattle.
I request that the Leader of the House arrange a debate on the proposed sale of the Great Southern Hotels. These hotels are a major State asset and we should not sell the family silver at this point. Discussions should be held on the possibility of entering into a public-private partnership.
This issue is an opportunity for a debate on entering into a public-private partnership, an arrangement which could work. The Great Southern Hotels chain is a credit to its management and staff and is at the leading edge of the tourism industry. Why should it be successful under public ownership as opposed to selling it off to the Tony O'Reillys of this world as was done in the case of Eircom?
Senator Ryan, supported by Senator Minihan, made an interesting point regarding Cork Airport and, as Senator Norris noted, many commitments are not kept. Senator Leyden's remarks appear to be at odds with those of the Taoiseach and the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism.
Following yesterday's bombshell, the Leader promised to obtain further information on the Great Southern Hotels group and how the company intended to proceed. In that regard, given that Cork Airport has been mentioned, there is no reason any of the three airport hotels at Dublin, Cork and Shannon, respectively, should be sold off. Will the financial position of the hotels add to the debt burden on Cork Airport?
I look forward to the Leader informing the House as to how the Government intends to proceed in this important matter because, family silver or not, it appears the decision to sell off the Great Southern Hotels has been taken, even if the matter must come before the Cabinet again? Will the hotels be sold as a group or individually?
On Tuesday, Senator Ulick Burke suggested the school buses ferrying children to and from schools should be audited. I agree such an audit should take place if the NCT procedure carried out on the buses is not adequate. However, I raise the issue for a different reason. With the mainstreaming of children in schools, many children with a disability are now being ferried to schools on school transport. Special schools have their own dedicated buses fitted with clamps for wheelchairs and straps to secure children. Do any school buses have these features which do not form part of the national car test? Perhaps this question should be examined as part of an audit.
Will the Leader ascertain the progress made on the sectoral plans envisaged under the Disability Act? Last week, I read in a newspaper that compliance under Part M of the building regulations, which relates to house-building, stands at just4%. As Senators are aware, Part M has been in place for years. If compliance is so low after so many years, I fear for the sectoral plans.
I support the call by Senator Ryan and other speakers for an immediate debate on the future of Cork Airport. We all appreciate the key economic importance of the airport for the city and the south-west region in general. We must insist that the commitment given by the Minister for Transport in the previous Government be fulfilled.
I support Senator O'Toole's comments on the sugar beet industry. This is an opportune time to raise the issue given that Greencore is holding its annual general meeting today. The House has debated the future of the Irish sugar industry on several occasions, notably in recent weeks. Following lengthy negotiations in Brussels before Christmas, an agreement was reached on the future of the European sugar industry. It is difficult to comprehend that the Minister and her advisers and officials do not know precisely what they signed up to at that point.
Complete confusion surrounds the issue of the sugar levy and compensation package. It is incomprehensible that the Government should sign up to a package and remain unaware of its contents. This matter must be addressed as one of urgency as we have days rather than weeks to save the Irish sugar industry. The House should hold a full debate on the sugar industry next week to clarify the crucial issues concerning the future of the sector. It is in everybody's interest that an industry which provides a source of income to perhaps 7,000 or 8,000 people be retained. Matters pertaining to the sector must be clarified immediately.
I agree with the calls that have been made on Cork and Dublin airports. I would like a debate on the State Airports Act. One of the provisions of the Act when it went through this House was that individual airports would have to produce business plans which would require the agreement of the Departments of Finance and Transport before the Act's main provisions could be implemented. This was to happen by approximately the middle of last year and has not happened to the original timescale. There is much negativity behind the scenes as a result of the Dublin Airport Authority acting in favour of Dublin Airport to the detriment of Shannon and Cork airports. The practices at Shannon Airport are unacceptable. An effort is being made to outsource quality jobs. It is another case of Irish workers being displaced by non-nationals.
If there were proper enforcement of penalty points, and people knew there was a strong likelihood that they would be caught if they speed, it would improve the road death statistics that are all too gory as time goes on. Almost three years ago, the then Minister, Deputy Brennan, gave clear commitments to everybody concerned that Cork Airport would not be saddled with a crippling debt. We now see his ideology come to the fore. The goalposts have been dramatically moved. The airport is of great importance to the economic vibrancy of the south west and is a crucial element in tourism.
It is an issue of concern and must be confronted truthfully and realistically. I want to raise the issue of a recent and very good debate, at the indulgence of the Leader, with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on the planning process. Deputy Roche said he would introduce legislation that would deal with various aspects of the planning process. I noticed in today's newspapers a case of a couple who applied for and received planning permission for a one-off rural house in County Leitrim. At the 11th hour An Taisce lodged an objection which was upheld. In the words of the seanchaí, there lies the story. That is the end of the road for that couple. Does the Leader intend to invite the Minister to the House to discuss the impending legislation or whether there is a timeframe for it?
Greencore has been referred to by a number of speakers. I support the call for a debate on the issue raised by Senator O'Toole. I have said before that it is both immoral and unjust that Greencore demands the €145 million that was allocated, less 10%. I see no reason to change my mind. The attitude of Greencore is such that it has its own agenda. I am of one mind with Senator O'Toole on that issue. On the issue raised by Senator Bradford, the agreement thereon was reached in principle last December in Brussels. The final legal document will be presented on 20 and 21 February and then we will know where we stand. Most people are aware of that and those who are not should desist from adding to the confusion.
The Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, recently introduced measures in the budget for alternative and renewable energy. Although these measures must be welcomed, in a global context they are paltry and do not go far enough. Donegal people are not impressed. Our Ulster colleagues in the Six Counties can avail of generous grants for micro-scale rooftop wind energy devices. The system is even more advanced in Scotland. Best practice in Denmark and Oklahoma suggests that rooftop wind generating systems work and when they are grant-aided at a household level are installed sensitively and are welcomed by the people. I would like to ask Deputy Cowen why, if these reports from Denmark show this is a success, we do not share it with the electorate but instead continue to kowtow to monopolies and big business. We are elected to lead and represent the citizens. When these schemes are available across the Border, why are they not standardised and made available here? A report produced by a UK Government-sponsored body has shown that by 2050, 30% to 40% of the UK's domestic energy needs could be provided by these micro-scale wind energy systems. We have the evidence and should do something about it.
As part of Transport 21 our ports were transferred from the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to the Department of Transport. We have an issue with port capacity for importers and exporters. There has been a 30-year debate on whether 52 acres should be reclaimed at Dublin Port. It has received little support. I would like the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, to come before this House to propose and discuss his plans now that ports are under his remit and establish a firm policy on our ports. Today's discussion on the Order of Business about Cork Airport, the partnership talks, the quality of jobs at Shannon Airport and how Dublin Airport might act independently indicates that we urgently need to have a clear-cut debate on this issue as soon as possible in order not to jeopardise the partnership talks.
Yesterday while the Taoiseach spoke in the other House on the need for an orderly sale of the Great Southern Hotels, Senator Cox and others in this House were saying "hands off the Great Southern Hotels". I endorse what Senators Morrissey and Leyden said. If we are to be a relevant body of the Oireachtas it is time we immediately discussed the Great Southern Hotels.
Some discussion has been going on in the mid-west on future arrangements regarding which agencies will be responsible for industrial development in the mid-west area. Since 1959 Shannon Free Airport Development Company has had the main responsibility for promoting local and overseas industry in the mid-west region and has had a good record of achievement. A view is now being put forward that the mandate might changed and a remit given to Enterprise Ireland, the IDA or a combination of both. It would be timely for the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to come to the House for a discussion on the future arrangements for the management and development of industry in the mid-west region between IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, Shannon Development Company, county development teams and enterprise agencies of one kind or another. We need to get some clear indication to give sense to a situation which is in need of overhaul.
I second Senator Ross's amendment to the Order of Business. In December 2004, the Government gave an absolute commitment to repay families that were overcharged and had moneys illegally deducted by nursing homes. It now appears that it may be thinking of reneging on this promise. I ask for the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children to come to the House and explain the current situation and when the moneys will be repaid, if ever.
Senator Brian Hayes, the Leader of the Opposition, asked about the need for legislation governing the use of mobile phones by drivers and offered his assistance in the passage of such legislation. The former Minister of State, Bobby Molloy, believed that a ministerial order would suffice for that matter. However, it was subsequently proved that legislation was needed and it is in the process of being formulated.
Senator Hayes also stated there is no place to stop on the M1 between Dundalk and the M50. Drivers are always urged to pull over if tiredness overcomes them. The NRA needs to be admonished for not stipulating that there should be such stops on motorways throughout the country. I agree with the Senator. The road seems barren and long without a stop, which could well be needed.
Senator O'Toole wants clarification about the scare stories to which we are periodically subjected. If it is not about SARS it is about bird flu. We now hear about Africa and he referred to the flu pandemic, which I believe took place in 1917. I have been reprimanded by our resident historian and I am told it was in 1918.
Senator O'Toole also asked for a debate on Greencore and its workers. Senator Ryan asked about the inquiry into the death of Pat Joe Walsh. We are awaiting the outcome. He spoke about Cork Airport, which we discussed some months ago and I understood provision in respect of the point raised was made in the legislation. If it was not in the legislation, a firm commitment was given in the House that Cork Airport would be left debt free——
——despite the very fine infrastructural work that was being done on the airport and which I understand has turned out very well. Nobody wishes to roll back on that; it was needed and it happened. The notion that Shannon and Cork airports would be left debt free was promulgated here. I remember many Members raising the issue. I remain to be convinced that the promotion of three companies vis-À-vis one company was in itself a good business idea. I cannot understand how three State companies should take over from one.
Earlier this week Senator Minihan raised on the Adjournment the matter of Cork Airport being debt free. The issue was also raised at the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting, lest Senators do not believe we talk about such issues in great detail. Something will need to happen. The board of directors was told that Cork Airport would be debt free. However, the DAA has stated that it would not take over its debt. The DAA is promoting Dublin at the expense of Cork and Shannon. Shannon Airport was lucky in completing its infrastructural development two or three years ago, before this idea came about. We will seek clarification from the Minister now in charge.
I am not indulging them at all. Senator Ulick Burke advised that he needed to leave the Chamber to partake in a radio interview. He welcomed the funding for special needs education at primary level. However, he rightly stated this needs to be carried through to second level. Regarding the home support grants for autism, special classes for autism staffed expertly by very good teachers and special needs assistants are springing up throughout the country. The corollary of this is that if special needs classes for autism are provided, the home support grants, which were given prior to the availability of the special needs classes now being proved in a school setting — I have experience of dealing with people involved — might not be needed. However, I believe with autism they are needed, as a combination of work at school and at home is required to bring forward a child with autism.
Senator Mansergh is rightly exercised about the partnership talks and the sale of the Great Southern Hotels. He believes the issue should not scupper the excellent talks that have started. Senator Norris spoke about gang warfare and the unsavoury circumstances in which migrants are queuing at Burgh Quay to get their passports.
Senator Leyden also spoke about the sale of the Great Southern Hotels and proposed that a public-private partnership would be a good idea. I cannot tell Senator Coghlan anything further. I understood that the Taoiseach and the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O'Donoghue, had a particular point of view. However, I take their point in that it is not possible to continue to run hotels that are incurring annual debts.
Senator Coghlan asked whether the hotels would be sold as a group or on an individual basis. I believe they should be sold singly because some of them have enormous potential and huge grounds which would allow development. I will endeavour to continue to ascertain the position for the Senator. I understand it might be difficult for him to go into his local pub in Killarney tonight or tomorrow. However, he has raised the matter here on three consecutive days.
Senator Kett mentioned that many children with disability are now in mainstream classes. He asked whether school buses have adequate facilities and referred to an audit of these buses. He also asked how the sectoral plans envisaged under the Disability Act are proceeding. One of the provisions of the Act was to ensure that all houses would be constructed to allow people with disabilities to move freely. A recently published report indicated that this was not happening. I will seek to have a debate on the matter.
Senator Bradford asked for a debate next week on Greencore and the sugar industry. He also spoke about Cork Airport. Senator Dooley called for a debate on the progress made since enactment of the State Airports Act. The only outcome he has seen in Shannon Airport is the outsourcing of good jobs. We will endeavour to have a debate on the matter.
I have just been passed a note regarding Great Southern Hotels. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, is not available for statements on the future of the group.
Senator McCarthy spoke about Cork Airport and planning. I am pleased to inform him that we will have a debate on planning next week. Although it is a resumed debate, we will give it another title so that those who spoke previously will also be allowed to speak.
Senator Callanan spoke about Greencore and the final legal document he said would be presented next week. Senator McHugh spoke about the renewable energy strategy. If it can be done in the United Kingdom it would cut back on the need for energy, as it currently stands, by 2050.
Senator Morrissey raised the ports issue and Dublin Port. He also wants a debate on the proposal regarding the Great Southern Hotels and asked what was happening in regard to the State airports. Senator Ross also called for an immediate debate on the Great Southern Hotels.
Senator Daly asked about the number of development agencies in the mid-west. He wants clarity on the promotion of industry in the mid-west region and called for the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to be invited to the House to discuss the issue.
Senator Cummins raised the question of nursing home charges. It is important to say that from time to time people make statements about various matters. Before Christmas the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Coughlan, said that the one-off yearly payment would not be paid to farmers but the payments were already in train; I understand 98% of farmers were paid. Yesterday, a statement was made to the effect that there was no increase in road grants in a particular county. I inquired about that and it turns out there was a very high increase in road grants for that county. The Senator who mentioned it is not here so I will not name him.
I will not mention the name but today we had a statement to the effect that the nursing home charges would not be paid. That is incorrect. Like the Cathaoirleach and many others, I received many queries about the matter and made an inquiry about it. Legislation is being prepared and it is hoped it will be passed by both Houses before the summer but it is incorrect to say the Government is moving away from its commitment. It is not and I want to strongly confirm that.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 16 (Paul Bradford, Fergal Browne, Paddy Burke, Ulick Burke, Paul Coghlan, Maurice Cummins, Frank Feighan, Brian Hayes, Mary Henry, Michael McCarthy, Joe McHugh, David Norris, Joe O'Toole, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Sheila Terry)
Against the motion: 25 (Cyprian Brady, Michael Brennan, Peter Callanan, Margaret Cox, Brendan Daly, Timmy Dooley, Liam Fitzgerald, John Gerard Hanafin, Tony Kett, Michael Kitt, Terry Leyden, Don Lydon, Martin Mansergh, John Minihan, Paschal Mooney, Tom Morrissey, Pat Moylan, Francis O'Brien, Mary O'Rourke, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Jim Walsh, Kate Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Tellers: Tá, Senators McCarthy and Ryan; Níl, Senators Minihan and Moylan.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 16 (Fergal Browne, Paddy Burke, Ulick Burke, Paul Coghlan, Noel Coonan, Maurice Cummins, Frank Feighan, Brian Hayes, Mary Henry, Joe McHugh, Tom Morrissey, David Norris, Joe O'Toole, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Sheila Terry)
Against the motion: 24 (Cyprian Brady, Michael Brennan, Peter Callanan, Margaret Cox, Brendan Daly, Timmy Dooley, Liam Fitzgerald, John Gerard Hanafin, Tony Kett, Michael Kitt, Terry Leyden, Don Lydon, Martin Mansergh, John Minihan, Paschal Mooney, Pat Moylan, Francis O'Brien, Mary O'Rourke, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Jim Walsh, Kate Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Norris and Ross; Níl, Senators Minihan and Moylan.